Friday, January 16, 2009

Talking About the Weather

I would have posted this sooner, if not for the urge to hibernate.

It didn’t use to be this way. When we moved to Madison in late 2001, the first few winters lacked teeth. Sure, there was the occasional snowstorm. The pesky ice that would enrobe power lines and sidewalks. I distinctly recall falling flat on my back once, staring at the sky, and thinking, “I really need to invest in some Yak Trax.” But really, it was all sunshine and lollipops compared to the past two years. We went from an average of about 45 inches of snowfall per season, to a total of 101.4 inches in 2007-2008. Then, in December 2008, 38.6 inches of snow fell in a single month. Periodic blizzards are often punctuated by extreme cold, referred to by meteorologists as “Alberta clippers”, as if calling flesh-freezing winds something jaunty makes them adorable.

But adaptation is a certainty, and it hasn’t taken Madisonites long to become well-versed in snowblowers, roof rakes, and antilock braking. Many of us have become one with our inner bears, as well. When the sun sets at 4:30 PM and the wind chill dips to -25 degrees Fahrenheit, please forgive the occasional cave-seeking and growling behavior.

Which begs the question: if necessity really is the mother of invention, can the need to innovate trump the need to hibernate? Musing, I searched the US Patent and Trade Office issued patent database by inventor city “Madison” and keyword “snow”. Sadly, searching for patents based on geographic limitation is not altogether precise, as the USPTO takes “inventor city” literally and truncates the state. Thus, there were some false hits for Madison, Georgia and the like. However, after scanning over the 109 issued patents (dated from 1976-present) that resulted, two portfolios caught my eye.

The first set of patents is assigned to a heavy trucking and snow removal equipment company in Madison named Burke Truck & Equipment, Inc. This forty-year-old private company manufacturers, tests and sells snow removal trucks. Inventors Daniel and/or Jayson Jones (likely father and son?) have been granted four patents for snowplow edges, mounts, and assemblies. Check back for more information; I’ll request quotes about company history, but this being their busiest time of the year, it may be a while before we hear back.

The second set of patents all have the same assignee, Weather Central, Inc. As it turns out, in the mid-1970s a meteorologist named Terry Kelly – then affiliated with the UW Space Science Center – decided that there might be a role for computer graphic animation in weather reporting. He teamed up with colleague and computer scientist Richard Daly, and together they built some of the first computer graphic systems for weather tracking, forecasting and reporting. According to the Colorado Weather Almanac (thanks, Google Books!), Kelly and Daly founded ColorGraphics Weather Stations - to commercialize a system for computer graphic display of satellite cloud data. Considering that this was in 1979, it was no small feat. The first system actually ran on an Apple II, but there was no connectivity to a TV station routing switcher, so broadcasting the animations required aiming a video camera at the computer screen.

From these humble beginnings, the company became the leading company for meteorological computer graphics. Weather Central was sold to Dynatch Corp. in 1982, but Kelly and Daly bought it back in 1994, carefully cultivating it ever since. It continues to have the highest market share in computer graphics meteorology service for broadcast television, and its patents (at least 13 issued, one pending) cover a range of weather reporting methods. In recent years, it has focused on services and products for HD weather broadcasting, and the type of extensive computer animation that is beloved by weather broadcasters everywhere. And occasionally lampooned or parodied by The Daily Show.

A fascinating August, 2008 interview with Terry Kelly by Wisconsin State Journal writer Melanie Conklin highlighted some of his varied interests. In addition to his involvement with Weather Central, Kelly also launched an online personalized weather reporting company called MyWeather, holds a financial stake in the liberal radio network Air America, and is himself the major production force behind the annual Rhythm and Booms fireworks show in Madison.

Fireworks and meteorology….what’s the connection? Well, during the interview, he shared that “One of my sons, Matt, was about 13 and he said, 'Dad, all your passions are the same. Think about it - you love to garden, you love flowers. You love weather and you love fireworks." I said, 'How are those the same?' He said, 'Don't you get it, they are all fireworks. Flowers are frozen fireworks - in fact most fireworks are named for flowers. And what you really love about weather are the storms and lightning, the booms - those are nature's fireworks. It's obvious to me you have one passion and it just expresses itself in a number of different ways.'”

So comforting to think of fireworks and summer nights now, when the temperature outside is -16 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill dipping down to -37.

Photo titled “Ice and Sky” (2009) provided by my husband, R. Clint Thayer. See more at

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Six dots that open the world

The holidays often bring news from friends in all corners of the world, and this year was no exception. One of the most fascinating updates was from a friend living in East Lansing, Michigan, where I attended graduate school at Michigan State University. I met her when I was studying at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory. A member of the talented staff who keep the institute running, she is a scientific editor and often lent her keen eyes to my first manuscripts. She wrote this year to describe dual and overlapping interests, music and Braille:

“Personally, my life is becoming ever more centered around music. I continue to struggle through violin lessons (with a most wonderfully patient teacher), and to play in a quartet and community orchestra--so thrilling! About five years ago, I was certified as a braille transcriber and joined a group of braillists transcribing textbooks into braille for students. That group disbanded last fall, as most of the younger members were in their 70s and had been brailling for decades. So, I decided to pursue my original idea, which was to work toward certification in music braille. I have read that there are fewer than 40 people in the country who have such certification, so the need is great. I am constantly overwhelmed by the ingenuity of Louis Braille, who devised both of these systems of representation by dots. A braille cell has only six dots, and yet a sheet of music, with different voices, lyrics, whatever, can be reproduced in a series of braille cells. Of course, it's incredibly complex and there are days when I wonder how I could have imagined this old dog could learn a new "language" at my age, but I also really enjoy working at it. It seems to satisfy my urge to work crossword puzzles, yet has the added attraction of being potentially useful. If I manage to finish the course, that is. :)

January 4, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth and the National Federation of the Blind is sponsoring initiatives designed to bring the importance of braille literacy for blind children to national attention. You can view a very moving video, "Braille: Unlocking the Code," on the NFB website: In March, a limited edition coin commemorating Braille's birth will be issued to raise awareness of the needs of blind people.”

My friend’s letter prompted me to learn more about the braille system and the life of Louis Braille. Interestingly, the precursor of the Braille system was a method of military communication developed by Charles Barbier de la Serre for Napoleon’s army called “night writing”. Berbier’s method used a series of twelve raised dots to represent 36 sounds. The military desired such a system so that soldiers could communicate battle plans at night silently, without need for illumination. However, when Berbier demonstrated his system to Louis and other students at the Royal Institute for Blind Children in Paris, Louis immediately realized why the system failed to be adopted: the human finger could not accommodate twelve dots, and the code was too complex. By the age of 15, Louis had developed a new method that relied on a six-dot cell. Braille and its precursors are thought by some linguistic experts to be the first example of a binary written language system in history. In current usage, the English alphabet braille system includes contractions and contextual meaning for needed brevity.

Though Braille’s innovative contribution was enormous, it does not appear that he (a French citizen) ever sought a U.S. patent claiming the braille system, although he did publish a book in 1829 about the system titled “Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them”. However, a search of the US Patent and Trademark Office site of issued patents with the term “braille” returns 1907 patents, ranging in date from 1926 to the present. Examples include display apparatuses for the braille system, writing devices and printing systems, and even a chess set incorporating braille notation (US Pat. No. 7,347,421).

If you are interested in becoming a certified braille transcriptionist, you can find more information from the National Federation of the Blind. Madison residents can attend a local Braille celebration event hosted by the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired this Wednesday, January 7; for more information, see If you don’t live in the Madison area, check around for a local event – celebrations and information sessions are being held nationwide.

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